The Birth and Rise of Washington Square Mall
A New Shopping Destination Emerges
In Indianapolis, a new era in retail began with the grand opening of Washington Square Mall in April 1974.
It was not just a mall but a beacon of modern shopping, offering a wide array of stores and services under one roof.
Developed by Edward J. DeBartolo Sr., a name synonymous with quality in commercial real estate, the mall quickly became a focal point for the community.
Its arrival was marked by fanfare and excitement, as it promised a new level of shopping experience, blending variety and convenience in a way the city hadn’t seen before.
From Eastgate to Washington Square: A Shift in Retail Power
The opening of Washington Square Mall was significant, as it led to the migration of prime tenants from the older Eastgate Shopping Center, just three miles away.
Opened in 1957, Eastgate had been the go-to shopping destination, but the allure of Washington Square, with its modern facilities and expansive space, was irresistible.
Leading retail giants like JCPenney and Sears leaped, reinforcing Washington Square’s position as the new retail powerhouse.
The shift wasn’t just a relocation but a transformation in the retail landscape, signaling a new chapter in Indianapolis’s commercial history.
Anchors Aweigh: A Hub of Top Retailers
The mall wasn’t content with just another shopping center; it aimed to be a destination. Anchoring the mall were illustrious names like L.S. Ayres, William H. Block, and Lazarus, each bringing their unique retail flair.
These anchors were more than stores; they were emblems of a prosperous era in retail, drawing crowds not only for their products but for the experience they offered.
Their presence turned Washington Square into a bustling hub where shopping was an event, and each visit was an adventure.
A trip to Washington Square wasn’t just about shopping; it was about exploring a world of retail under one roof. Today, as we reflect on its history, it’s intriguing to think about all the things to do in Indianapolis, Indiana, that once revolved around this mall.
The Decline of a Retail Giant
Mergers, Renovations, and the Tides of Change
The late 1990s and early 2000s marked a pivotal era for Washington Square Mall, beginning with a significant merger in the retail property sector.
In 1996, Simon Property Group, a titan in the shopping mall industry, merged with the DeBartolo company.
This strategic union brought new management philosophies and resources to the table. To reinvigorate Washington Square Mall, Simon undertook substantial renovations in 1999, aiming to modernize the mall and enhance its appeal to shoppers.
The Turn of the Tide: Retail Shifts and Store Exits
However, despite these efforts, the mall faced a challenging period from 2000 to 2010. This timeframe was characterized by a noticeable foot traffic decline and several key tenants’ departures.
Prominent stores like Old Navy, JCPenney, and Macy’s, once anchors that drew substantial crowds, decided to pull out of the mall.
These departures were significant blows to Washington Square, reflecting a shifting retail landscape where traditional brick-and-mortar stores faced increasing competition from online shopping platforms.
In a turn of events, Burlington occupied the space formerly held by JCPenney in 2003, providing a much-needed boost to the mall’s tenant lineup.
Additionally, Indy Wholesale moved into the space left vacant by Macy’s. These changes, while positive, highlighted the mall’s ongoing struggle to maintain a full roster of anchor tenants.
By 2008, Washington Square Mall achieved stability, filling all five anchor tenant slots. Target took over the site that once housed Block (later Montgomery Ward), and Dick’s Sporting Goods replaced Lazarus in July 2002.
This reshuffling of tenants indicated a dynamic attempt to keep the mall relevant and attractive to shoppers.
Facing New Realities: Changing Consumer Preferences
The challenges, however, were far from over. In February 2013, a key tenant, Indy Wholesale Furniture, announced its closure, signaling another vacancy in the mall’s anchor spots.
The following year, Washington Square experienced further setbacks by losing BonWorth, Rack Room Shoes, MCL Cafeteria, and Foot Locker.
These stores, particularly Foot Locker, which relocated to Cherry Tree Plaza, exemplified the ongoing trend of tenants leaving the mall for newer or more lucrative locations.
Early 2016 brought more bad news as Aeropostale, a popular apparel store among younger demographics, departed from the mall.
This was followed by the exit of Buffalo Wild Wings in mid-2018, removing a dining option that had contributed to the mall’s social and recreational appeal.
Management Shifts and Financial Struggles
A New Era of Management
In a significant turn of events, Washington Square Mall changed management in 2014. The mall, which had been under the stewardship of Simon Property Group, transitioned to the hands of Jones Lang LaSalle.
This shift marked a new chapter in the mall’s history, one that brought with it a set of challenges and opportunities.
Recognizing the financial burdens associated with the mall, Simon Property Group opted to hand over the deed to the property.
This decision was a strategic move to avoid a costly and lengthy foreclosure proceeding. For Jones Lang LaSalle, managing the mall presented an opportunity to revitalize a once-thriving shopping center, albeit under difficult circumstances.
Navigating Financial Turbulence
The transition to new management coincided with a financial struggle for Washington Square Mall. The new administration faced an uphill battle in addressing the mall’s economic woes.
One of the critical challenges was the property’s accumulating debt, which had reached a point where it overshadowed the mall’s value.
Furthermore, occupancy rates dipped below 50 percent by 2013, starkly contrasting the bustling crowds of the mall’s heyday.
Despite these hurdles, efforts were made to revive the mall’s fortunes, leading to a brief resurgence in occupancy rates.
This period highlighted the resilience of the mall in the face of financial adversity, as well as the ongoing need for innovative solutions to sustain its relevance.
Kohan Retail Investment Group’s Ownership and Its Impact
In 2016, Washington Square Mall entered another phase of its journey with the purchase by Kohan Retail Investment Group.
This change in ownership brought different challenges, particularly in maintenance and property taxes.
The new property owner, while initially enthusiastic about reviving the mall, soon needed help managing the basic needs of the property.
Reports of neglect in areas such as garbage collection and general maintenance surfaced, painting a picture of a mall in decline.
However, despite these setbacks, the mall managed to maintain a reasonable occupancy rate, thanks in part to the small businesses and family-owned shops that filled the empty spaces.
The presence of these businesses provided a glimmer of hope. Despite its challenges, it suggested that Washington Square Mall still holds potential as a community space.
New Ownership and the Loss of Anchor Stores
In October 2018, Washington Square Mall was put up for auction due to unpaid property taxes, a clear indicator of the financial struggles it was experiencing.
The following year, in 2019, Durga Property LLC took ownership of the mall. This change in ownership was a potential opportunity for revitalization. However, the challenges continued to mount.
On January 1, 2020, a major announcement revealed that two of the mall’s key anchor stores, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Burlington Coat Factory, were set to leave.
Their departure would leave Target as the sole remaining anchor store, a significant shift from the mall’s former status as a bustling retail hub.
The mall’s challenges were further compounded in late 2022 when Bath & Body Works, another significant tenant, vacated its space.
These departures indicated the ongoing struggles faced by Washington Square Mall as it grappled with retaining tenants and maintaining its relevance in a changing retail environment.
The Community’s Connection to Washington Square Mall
Fond Memories and Hopes for Revival
Washington Square Mall, despite its struggles, holds a special place in the hearts of those who frequented it during its prime.
It was more than just a shopping center; it was a gathering spot where people from all walks of life came together to socialize, celebrate, and create lasting memories.
The mall’s corridors echoed with the laughter of friends and families, and its stores were the backdrop for countless shopping trips and spontaneous gatherings.
As the community reminisces about the glory days of Washington Square Mall, there is an undercurrent of hope that it may someday experience a revival.
The idea of transforming the mall into a mixed-use development, incorporating retail spaces with offices and residential units, has been seen in other struggling malls nationwide.
Such an innovative approach could breathe new life into Washington Square, re-establishing it as a bustling destination and social hub.
Reflecting on the Mall’s Role in the Community
The significance of Washington Square Mall extended beyond its commercial function. It was a venue for community events, where people celebrated holidays, participated in local initiatives, and engaged with their community.
The mall was a landmark in Indianapolis for its size and variety of stores and its role as a community center.
It witnessed generations of families growing up, friendships forming, and countless personal stories unfolding within its walls.
As shopping habits and retail trends evolve, the memories and experiences shared at Washington Square Mall remain a testament to its once pivotal role in the lives of Indianapolis residents.
The Potential for a New Chapter
The story of Washington Square Mall is a microcosm of the broader changes in the retail industry. The decline of traditional shopping malls across the country reflects a shift in consumer preferences and the advent of new shopping paradigms.
However, the mall’s enduring connection to the community suggests it could be reimagined and repurposed with the right vision and investment.
The potential for Washington Square Mall to adapt and find a new purpose as a community space with a blend of retail, leisure, and residential elements remains an exciting prospect.
The mall’s future may be uncertain, but its past as a beloved community hub inspires what it could become once again.
Lessons Learned from Washington Square Mall
Adapting to Changing Shopping Habits
The story of Washington Square Mall serves as a valuable lesson for the retail industry and mall developers in the face of changing shopping habits.
The transition from a bustling shopping destination to a mall struggling to retain tenants and attract customers reflects a broader trend in the retail sector.
As e-commerce gains dominance and consumer preferences shift towards online shopping, physical retail spaces are challenged to reinvent themselves.
Washington Square Mall’s decline illustrates the need for traditional shopping centers to adapt to these changes.
Integrating unique experiences, embracing technological advancements, and focusing on local businesses can help malls stay relevant and appealing in an increasingly digital marketplace.
The Importance of Innovation and Community Engagement
Innovation is key to the survival and success of malls in the modern retail landscape. Washington Square Mall’s journey highlights the importance of evolving beyond the traditional mall format to meet new consumer demands.
This could involve offering diverse experiences beyond shopping, such as entertainment, dining, and community events.
Fostering a sense of community and creating spaces catering to local needs can help malls maintain relevance.
By focusing on these aspects, malls can transform into vibrant, multifaceted destinations that draw visitors for various reasons, not just shopping.
The Uncertain Future of Washington Square Mall
The Current State: A Lone Anchor and Diminished Foot Traffic
As of 2023, Washington Square Mall faces a challenging landscape. The departure of two of its remaining three anchor stores, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Burlington Coat Factory, in early 2020 left Target as the lone anchor.
This significant reduction in major retailers has impacted the mall’s foot traffic and vitality. Once a bustling hub of activity, the mall now confronts the reality of a diminished retail presence.
The departure of major stores reflects broader trends in the retail industry, where big-box stores face increasing competition from online retailers and changing consumer preferences.
Navigating Through Challenges and Potential Paths Forward
Washington Square Mall’s journey through the decades mirrors the highs and lows of the retail sector. The challenges it faces are not unique, but they are significant.
The loss of key tenants and the struggle to attract new ones highlight the need to reimagine the mall’s purpose and offerings strategically. The potential paths forward include:
- Shifting towards a more diverse mix of tenants.
- Incorporating local businesses.
- Entertainment options.
- Even residential or office spaces.
The goal would be to transform the mall into a multi-use destination that can attract more visitors and serve various community needs.
Reflecting on the Mall’s Legacy and Potential for Rebirth
Despite its current struggles, Washington Square Mall holds a unique place in the history of Indianapolis.
With innovative thinking and a commitment to adaptation, Washington Square Mall can experience a rebirth. It could once again become a vibrant part of the community, albeit in a new and evolved form, adapting to the ever-changing retail landscape.
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